Another one of America’s non-renewable resources disappeared when trumpeter John Brunious, leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for more than 20 years, died February 12. Brunious and his younger brother Wendell were born to the music through both sides of their family. Their father, also named John Brunious, played trumpet and piano in the early 20th Century and transcribed the classic jazz composition “Bourbon Street Parade.” The elder Brunious also wrote and arranged for jazz icons Billy Eckstine and Cab Calloway. Their mother Nazimova is from the venerable Santiago family, which included uncle Willie Santiago, a guitarist who played with Buddy Bolden.
“My grandmother and her brother were musicians too,” says Brunious’ nephew Mark Braud, who is the featured trumpet player in the Harry Connick, Jr. Orchestra. “Willie Santiago played guitar and banjo. He was one of the earliest recorded jazz guitarists. It’s in my blood. I can feel it when I play. I’m really proud of my family.”
Braud remembers hearing his uncle John play as a normal childhood experience.
“It was only when I started playing myself that I realized how much of a giant he was on the trumpet,” says Braud. “The first time I played at Jazz Fest with NOCCA, he gave me a lot of encouragement. He was interested in what I sounded like. We talked about music a lot. He encouraged me to learn about the traditional music. He played with a lot of musicians who played early New Orleans jazz. I tried to learn as much as I can about traditional music. It’s very personal to me.”
Despite his credentials as a traditional jazz player, Brunious was also a virtuoso performer in classical, big band and early bop settings. “He was a very diverse stylist,” says Braud. “When I talked to my uncle Wendell, he told me that John was the greatest trumpet player that he ever heard live. He told me he used to listen to John playing Dizzy Gillespie solos and Maynard Ferguson and things like that, then he could turn around and play traditional music but with a conception that was very modern. He was a musician’s musician. Everyone who knew him knew him to be very knowledgeable and have a good understanding of the music. Also, he was very interested in the music’s development. He would ask, ‘Have you heard this?’ or ‘Have you heard that?’ ‘What are you listening to?’ ‘What are you working on?’”
Brunious’ passing at 67 shook the city’s jazz community, where he had made many lifelong friends.
“I first saw John Brunious play when I was a youngster during my Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band days circa 1970-74,” recalls one of those friends, trumpeter Leroy Jones. “I remember actually meeting him for the first time back in 1976 when I was playing at the La Strada, on Bourbon Street, and John was the trumpet player with drummer June Gardner’s Gentlemen of Jazz. During the early 1980s when there were more clubs with live jazz on Bourbon Street, I had the opportunity to share the bandstand with John when he played piano for a period during his career. These were clubs like Maison Bourbon and the Famous Door. Occasionally we would also appear together within the brass band context, usually as trumpeters with groups like the Tuxedo Brass Band when alto saxophonist Herman Sherman was its band leader.
“The thing about John that made him stand out from others as a player was his leadership ability, and as with other bona fide jazz musicians, he possessed a very personal style and sound. The last time I saw John was before Hurricane Katrina. He was playing at the Preservation Hall. On his break, we were happy to see one another. He was always telling me how great I’ve been sounding. But in reality, I think he was the great one, a pioneer and mentor for many to follow.”
Clint Maedgen, who joined the Preservation Hall band three years ago when it began to include in its repertoire the Kinks’ “Complicated Life” and “Skin and Bone,” was profoundly influenced by Brunious.
“I think of him every day,” says Maedgen. “John was a really special person. His death seemed like out of the blue. I’m still trying to understand it. He was such a complete musician, so versatile. There are so many stories, like the time John got a call to play with James Brown when he came through town and his trumpeter was sick. He was New Orleans.”
Maedgen pointed out that performing with Brunious was a constant learning experience, especially “the way he listened to the melodies of songs. We recorded ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love’ two years ago, but when we would go over it, he would keep exploring the melody. ‘Let me sing it to you one more time,’ he would say. You’re never done with a song. It grows forever. Like the way he sang, ‘Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,’ his signature song. That was my momma’s favorite song. I’ve been hearing that my whole life, but he never did it the same way twice. He was always in the moment.”
Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall’s director and part-time bassist in the band, had been planning to make a tribute album to Brunious’ father in April.
“John and I were working on a brass band project to honor the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, who were recorded at John’s father’s house by Atlantic Records in 1958,” says Jaffe. “I brought John the idea of recreating that record with John playing first trumpet and his brother Wendell playing second trumpet. John was touched by that idea and we were trying to do the project at his family home in the 7th Ward, even though it was destroyed by Katrina. He was looking forward to it, and we were putting a band together to do the project and actually had a recording date scheduled for April. John had been to New Orleans recently to have some dental work done and his chops were strong. It’s even more important to do this project now that John’s not here.”
Brunious’ life was most likely attenuated by the physical battering he endured during and after Katrina. He remained in his home through the storm in a futile attempt to save his possessions, which were eventually lost in the federal flood that ensued. Brunious lost all six of his trumpets as well as his archives of written and recorded music. Though he was rescued from the floodwaters, his skin was badly burned during his immersion in the poisoned sludge, and he developed respiratory problems afterwards which initially prevented him from rejoining the band. Brunious ended his days exiled in Florida and hoping to return to his native city.
“Katrina ran a lot of people out of New Orleans along with the musicians,” he lamented last year to OffBeat’s Alex Rawls. “Those musicians played New Orleans jazz, not Houston jazz or Phoenix, Arizona jazz. I feel an obligation to New Orleans. We don’t want this music to become lost. I was born and raised in New Orleans, and I love New Orleans despite the fact that I’m living outside of Orlando, Florida right now.
“One day very soon,” Brunious concluded, “I’m going to go back to New Orleans.”
Brunious’ wish was finally fulfilled. He returned to the city he loved to be interred, and was celebrated with jazz funeral and second line February 22. His body will rest there, but his music will live on forever.